I am an evolutionary biologist with a focus on human evolution and functional and evolutionary morphology of vertebrates, particularly focusing on mammals and birds.
My main research interest focuses on the function, evolution and variability of the organs of acoustic communication (the auditory region and the larynx) in primates and in particular hominoids. Using a comparative approach and combining state-of-the-art experimental techniques (e.g., laser-Doppler vibrometry), 3D morphometrics and modern 3D imaging techniques (I am also leading a micro CT facility at MPI-SHH) of hard and soft tissues I am trying to understand how morphological changes of the structures of the auditory region (outer, middle and inner ear) and the sound producing apparatus (larynx, oral cavity, tongue, etc.) relate to differences in sound perception and production. Using these data and incorporating information from fossil hominids and in particular fossil hominins like australopiths or Neandertals I am aiming to understand how acoustic communication has evolved with primates and in particular within the human lineage. In this way, I am able to reconstruct morphological changes over evolutionary time scales and even, with all scientific caution, to understand the behavior and way of life of extinct groups. This research is also inevitably connected to the question on the origin of human spoken language, sometimes called as ‘one of the hardest problems in science’. Thus, together with my Ph.D. student Joaquin Del Rio (in a project funded by the Max Planck Society that is just about to start), we are studying variability of hearing and auditory morphology in a large sample of human individuals.
Finally, since many of the bony structures of the auditory region have shown to express a species or even population specific morphology I am using these structures as markers for taxonomic assignment of fragmented fossil remains or for reconstructing migratory patterns.
However, my research is not limited to primates and hominins. Together with my research group I am currently investigating the functional morphology of the auditory system of small mammals (Ph.D. Joaquin Del Rio), functional morphology of the carnivore auditory system (Ph. D. thesis Roxana Taszus), allometry and function of the otolith organ system (vestibule) of mammals (Master’s thesis Rebecca Pflug), the function of the vestibular system of lampreys and myxines (Master’s thesis Moritz Predel) and allometry of the mammalian auditory system (Master’s thesis Ana Gomes). Working closely together with Adrian Richter from the entomology lab of the Institute of Zoology and Evolutionary Research and using our BrukerTM SkyScan 2211 multiscale X-ray Nanotomograph I am also working on improving CT scanning of arthropods, with particular emphasis on the sub-micron level of image spatial resolution.